A rose among the thorns
Posted on October 4, 2012
If there is one thing that all we humans have in common, it is the lack of commonality.
We all have had a multitude of experiences during our tenure on this mortal coil, and they are different for us all. Some are pleasant, even joyous, while others are what I like to refer to as the “thorns “.
In the course of my career as a professional helicopter pilot, I have been called upon to perform a very wide variety of tasks. From air ambulance, fire fighting, and uncountable trips to offshore locations, ferrying men and equipment to the rigs that produce the carbon fuels for us.
Many of these chores have been mundane and repetitive, an exercise in mind numbing sameness.
I have, however, on occasion, been tasked to perform services which were more satisfying.
One of the most gratifying tasks I have been called upon to perform was providing disaster relief. On two occasions I have traveled to another country to assist after hurricanes have decimated an area.
The first was in 1998 when hurricane Mitch devestated Nicaraugua. Although I did take some satisfaction in helping people who desperatly needed it, it was also a very frustrating time, as the magnitude of the disaster was beyond the ability of the available resources to make a significant difference. This coupled with the lack of effort by an uncaring and corrupt goverment resulted in a sense of futility, as the amount of aid we were able to provide was woefully inadequate to the task at hand. This was definitely one of the thorns.
In contrast, the following year I was dispatched to eastern Mexico to provide similar service.
Tropical depression seven came ashore in the vicinity of Vera Cruz along the western shore of the gulf of Mexico. While it was not a very powerful storm, it lingered over the eastern part of the country for two days, which allowed an incredible amount of rain to hammer the area. This resulted in massive flooding.
As the terrain inland from Vera Cruz is very mountainous, the resulting damage to the infrastructure was devestating. Hundreds of small towns and villages were completely isolated, cut off as a result of bridges and roads being rendered impassable. Electrical power was non-existant in the interior.
In contrast to the response in Nicaraugua the previous year, the goverment of Mexico mounted a massive relief effort. Thousands of aid workers were brought in. Ships and aircraft began to arrive in the port cities of Tampico and Vera Cruz, loaded with thousands of tons of supplies donated by countries around the world. As most of the roads into the interior were useless, helicopters by the dozens were contracted for, and brought into the area. Many came from as far away as Columbia and Canada.
My company responded with three medium helicopters. We were dispatched to an airport in a city named Poza Rica, which was located in the foothills of the mountains, a very convenient staging area.
Hundreds of trucks were bringing supplies in from the port cities on the coast.
The city was swarming with people. Hotel rooms were at a premium, people doubling up, some sharing accomodations three and four to a room. A mattress on the floor was appreciated, as many men had to make do with a truck seat, or even a bale of blankets in a corner of a warehouse or hangar. The local restaurants were overwhelmed, and could not keep up with the demand placed upon them. As our jobs required us to work late into the evening hours, pickings were often very slim when we finally did get the chance to get a meal. Hot showers, while not unknown in Mexican hotels, are not given the same priority as in the U.S. After a long hard day of flying, a cold shower did little to improve one’s mood. Laundry services were a rarity. Rinsing out underwear and socks in a sink was the norm.
I and my comrades were put to work flying to the stranded communities in the interior. A typical load would consist of 25 kilogram bags of rice, beans, cornmeal, and flour, augmented by 2 liter tins of cooking oil. Bundles of blankets and donated clothing were common. It gets very chilly in those mountains at night. Water purification tablets and medical supplies were usually included.
It was not uncommon for doctors, nurses, and sanitation engineers to accompany us.
To the unininitiated, flying helicopters may not seem to be a physically demanding task. Let me assure you otherwise. The flying we were doing was in an extremely challenging area. High altitudes, heavy loads, and rugged terrain made our jobs very arduous. The weather also refused to co-operate. Low clouds, overcast ceilings and frequent fog compounded the difficulty of our chore.
On one particular occasion, I had flown a load of supplies into a small village, which I never learned the name of, at the head of a very high steep valley. As I had arrived at the airport before dawn that morning, breakfast had not been on the agenda. I had also flown through the lunch hour.
Upon arrival at the small town in question, I had a great deal of dificulty finding a reasonably level area to land in. I chose a corn field about a quarter mile from the town. As the storm had already destroyed the crop, I knew the locals would not mind.
I was heavily loaded, and the high altitude affected the performance of my aircraft to it’s detriment. The landing was much more abrupt than I would have liked. The machine contacted the earth much harder than I had intended. It even bounced a few inches. Not a very professional job on my part.
I was unhappy and disgusted with myself, as I take pride in my ability to make a smooth landing. This coupled with the fact that I had not eaten all day and I was feeling grungy wearing clothes that had not been cleaned in three days, put me in a foul mood. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired from a long day of effort.
An uncharitable observer might have described me as surly and short tempered.
This was definitely a thorny day.
As I sat there berating myself for my lack of professionalism, several men approached and began to unload the supplies from my aircraft. I kept the engines running, as I anticipated being there for a brief time only.
While this was underway, I happened to glance down the road leading to the community and noticed a group of ten or so people approaching. They stopped some distance away with the exception of two. One of these was an elderly man, whom I was later told was the mayor of the town. The other was a very pretty young girl of sixteen or so.
These two seperated from the group and walked up near to my aircraft. The man was wearing a black suit and a fedora hat, the girl a flowered blue print dress.
When they got close enough I could see that the man’s suit was shabby. The cuffs at wrist and ankle were frayed, as was the collar of his shirt. His shoes were scuffed. The girls dress had been mended in several places. I am sure that these garments were their Sunday best, even taking into account their worn appearance.
When they got near my machine, I could see the gentleman speaking to the girl. If was obvious that he was urging her to approach me. She reluctently did so, holding her skirts down with her left hand to preserve her modesty in the wind generated by my rotors.
I opened the door and removed my headset to allow me to hear her.
When she was near enough, she reached up and handed me a bottle of orange soda.
Over the noise of my engines and rotors I could just make out the one word she spoke to me;
She then turned and scuttled shyly away, still holding her skirts in place.
After she re-joined the larger group, my attention was drawn to the elderly man. With a great deal of dignity, he drew himself very erect. He then reached up and took the crown of his hat in his hand, removing it from his head and placing it on his breast. This was followed by a small bow as he nodded to me. His message was clear. He was also saying thank you. I returned his gesture, bowing as much as my restraining harness would allow, and waved my hand to indicate that he was welcome. I am certain he understood. Then he replaced his hat on his head, turned, and returned to the group. All of them began walking back down the road, returning to their homes.
I examined the bottle of soda. It was chipped around the base and the portion that bulged out. It had obviously been re-used numerous times. There was a ring of rust around the mouth.
Regardless, I drank it down gratefully. It was possibly the best drink I have ever had, even though it was warm and flat, every vestige of carbonation having long since departed. It was better than the finest wines I have drunk.
This simple act of gratitude touched me in a place deep inside. I cherish the memory to this day.
When the un-loading was completed, I took off again. My route of flight took me near the group of people returning to their homes. They all stopped and waved to me as I flew overhead. I returned the gesture.
For the rest of my tenure in Mexico, I kept that empty bottle under the seat of my aircraft. Whenever I was was having another thorny day, I would touch it and remember the gesture from those gentle people, who in the midst of their own adversity, were gracious enough to offer a sincere act of gratitude.
I completed the rest of the day, indeed the remainder of my time in Mexico rejuvinated, with a greater perspective on the human condition.
On that day I was presented with a rose from among the thorns.
Last edited by T. Clifford on November 29, 2012, 4:15 pm